B.B. Oak is the pen name of writers Ben and Beth Oak. Their most recent mystery novel is Thoreau in Phantom Bog, featuring Henry David Thoreau as a detective. They also have written Thoreau at Devil's Perch and Thoreau on Wolf Hill. They live in Connecticut.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of Henry David Thoreau as a detective, and how much of his real-life words and thoughts show up in the novels?
Beth: We came up with the idea on a visit to Walden Pond. We started talking about how people in Thoreau's day claimed the pond was bottomless until Henry put an end to the legend by measuring its depth.
Then one of us commented that Thoreau would have made a great detective because of his determination to get to the truth of a matter.
Ben: Also, like Sherlock Holmes, he had great powers of observation and deduction. It was Thoreau who said, "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." He devoted himself to investigating the world around him.
But what would make Thoreau leave the peace of Walden Pond to solve a murder? His sense of justice, of course. Henry would have felt compelled to prove the innocence of someone he believed had been unjustly accused of a crime. Hence, the plot of the first Thoreau mystery, Thoreau at Devil's Perch, was hatched.
Beth: But it took us a while to develop a way to tell the story. We like the immediacy of first person yet thought it would have been presumptuous to try to write in Thoreau's style. So we created a doctor and an artist to be Henry's friends and narrate the stories.
We do our best to stay true to Thoreau's philosophy and voice in his dialogue. Sometimes we paraphrase what he wrote, sometimes we quote verbatim. We feel what he had to say is as relevant today as it was during his era.
Ben: Maybe more so.
Q: Why did you choose to focus on the Underground Railroad in this novel, and was there anything that particularly surprised you as you researched the book?
Ben: We wanted to portray an exciting side of Thoreau's character that's little known. His activities as an Underground Railroad conductor were kept secret by necessity and so there was little evidence left behind.
But our research turned up witnesses of that time who tell of Thoreau's tireless efforts to help runaways reach slave-free Canada. By aiding and abetting these fugitives, he consistently broke the law of the land. That did not bother him in the least. Henry felt his only obligation was to do what he himself thought was right.
Beth: What surprised us was how the institution of slavery was tolerated by so many people in New England. Some believed in keeping the Union together at all costs, even if it meant accepting that a human being could be the lawful property of another.
Ben: Also, the economy of the North depended on cotton from the plantations and the plantations depended on slave labor. The mills that turned the cotton into fabric employed thousands of workers. There were anti-abolitionist riots even in Boston, the Cradle of Liberty.
Q: Did you know when you wrote the first Thoreau mystery that it would be a series?
Ben: The first book just grew out of our mutual fascination with Thoreau, which goes back to college days. And once we put him in the role of Master Detective, he fit the bill so perfectly we kept inventing mysteries for him to solve and ended up writing a trilogy.
Beth: We limited the time period to about three years, while Henry was living at Walden Pond and then with Lidian Emerson. We write about him as a young, vital man in his 20s. He had such energy and lust for life then. That's the Thoreau we envision in our books.
Q: How do the two of you collaborate on your books?
Beth: Plotting together is one of our great pleasures. Then Ben writes the male narrator's point of view and I write the female narrator's. The difficulty comes when we trespass into each other's territory during the rewrites.
Ben: And as much as we try to follow the story outline we've done together, when we go our separate ways to write we each have our own vision. Characters can sometimes go off track in our imaginations and surprise us both.
Beth: Actually, I usually do follow the outline. Ben is more seat of the pants.
Q: What are you working on now?
Beth: We're fascinated by the American writers and artists who came together in France in the 1920s and think that time and place is rich material for mysteries. Plenty of loves, jealousies and motives for murder.
Q: Anything else we should know?
Ben: Here's the reason we write mysteries. As unfair as life seems at times, we truly believe in karma, that you reap what you sow. All actions have consequences but sometimes they're not obvious or immediate. In a mystery they are. There is always a resolution because the murderer is always unmasked and brought to justice.
Beth: So when you close the book there's a sense of completion, which is very satisfying.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb